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PNAS 103 (1): 207-211

Copyright © 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences.


Stimulation of muscarinic receptors mimics experience-dependent plasticity in the honey bee brain

Nyla Ismail *, {dagger}, Gene E. Robinson *, {dagger}, {ddagger} §, and Susan E. Fahrbach §, ¶

*Neuroscience Program, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801; {ddagger}Department of Entomology, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801; and Department of Biology, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC 27109

Contributed by Gene E. Robinson, September 26, 2005

Abstract: Honey bees begin life working in the hive. At {approx}3 weeks of age, they shift to visiting flowers to forage for pollen and nectar. Foraging is a complex task associated with enlargement of the mushroom bodies, a brain region important in insects for certain forms of learning and memory. We report here that foraging bees had a larger volume of mushroom body neuropil than did age-matched bees confined to the hive. This result indicates that direct experience of the world outside the hive causes mushroom body neuropil growth in bees. We also show that oral treatment of caged bees with pilocarpine, a muscarinic agonist, induced an increase in the volume of the neuropil similar to that seen after a week of foraging experience. Effects of pilocarpine were blocked by scopolamine, a muscarinic antagonist. Our results suggest that signaling in cholinergic pathways couples experience to structural brain plasticity.

Key Words: acetylcholine • Apis mellifera • foraging • mushroom body

Author contributions: N.I., G.E.R., and S.E.F. designed research; N.I. performed research; N.I. analyzed data; and N.I., G.E.R., and S.E.F. wrote the paper.

Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.

§ G.E.R. and S.E.F. contributed equally to this work.

{dagger} To whom correspondence may be addressed. E-mail: nismail{at} or generobi{at}

© 2006 by The National Academy of Sciences of the USA

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